Friday, July 29

REVIEW: Café Society

Directed by Woody Allen
2016 Romance Drama
1 hour 36 minutes
From Lionsgate

Jesse Eisenberg
Kristen Stewart
Steve Carell
Blake Lively
Jeannie Berlin
Carey Stoll
Ken Stott
Parker Posey

One can always count on certain staples in Woody Allen's movie pantry.  His location city is lovingly and gorgeously filmed, there's a soundtrack of beautiful standards from the good old days and there's an inappropriate relationship at some level.  In this case, the director-writer has dug deeper into the pantry and come up with one of his standby ingredients, Jewish angst.

Allen and I have had an on again-off again relationship for years. His early films I detested but he won me over during his Diane Keaton period.  The Mia Farrow years, by and large, I yawned through but the period that came next and has lasted at least through today has become my favorite.  It is helped immensely by the fact that Allen seems to have stopped appearing in his films and that's a good thing.

And with no Allen on screen, there just simply couldn't possibly be a better substitute than Jesse Eisenberg... Jewish, oddly-shaped, anxious, all over the map as he lays out a simple sentence. His delivery of some lines were so eerily Allen that if my eyes had been closed, I would have sworn it was the old man himself.  Star and director have worked together before (2012s To Rome with Love) and I suspect there will be more. 

One thing I loved about Café Society is that it stars not one but two cities, America's largest, New York and Los Angeles.  As always, Allen gives as much loving attention to his locales as he does his words or actors. Stripped of its dirty air and paralyzing traffic, Allen and his stunning frequent cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, and production designer Santo Loquasto, give a beautiful pastel look to the City of the Angels and an ultra-glamorous look to the movie colony.  (For 10 minutes I thought of moving back there and then I snapped out of it.)  Allen's long love affair with Manhattan continues with those twinkling, panoramic views of the city as it doesn't sleep and daytime shots that should be on postcards.

Eisenberg stars as a young New Yorker who moves to Los Angeles in the hopes that his filthy rich, movie agent uncle (Carell) will secure him some work and a future.  He falls in love with his uncle's secretary (Stewart), who, unknown to him, is having a love affair with the uncle.  Returning unhappily to New York, he is taken into his gangster brother's (Stoll) nightclub business.  While we get to know our young man's east coast family pretty well, is L.A. truly a thing of the past?

It all takes place in the late 30s and into the forties which gives rise to another Allen perfection, the period look.  Boy oh boy, does he pull this off.   Mix in the music and the cities and it is one intoxicating brew for me. It's why I can't seem to stay away from Allen films.

The story itself is perfectly fine... I was up and perky and ready to see what the next scene would bring... but I suspect the film won't break out of the art houses and won't hold up as one of Allen's better or most talked-about films. His detractors will certainly say it was not only nothing special but it's just some re-heated potato latkes with some fresh sour creme.  I wouldn't be that hard on it while admitting Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine need not worry.

Allen, in my regard, is almost always dead-on in his casting.  It's one of the things this man does well.  When it works as he expected it might, he uses that person again. Eisenberg has never rattled my chains particularly but I just can't think of anyone better suited to this role.  Carell was also a superb choice (didn't he inherit the role after Bruce Willis was fired?) for the powerful mover and shaker uncle.  Stoll, whom I loved as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, breaks away from thug caricature and breathes some life into the part.

I've doled out some previous and decidedly untasty candor about how I feel about Stewart's screen presence.  We won't revisit that now but I derive much pleasure at saying this is her most engaging, personable and smiling role. Many kudos, too, to the folks who did her makeup and turned her into a swan.  Thanks, Mr. Director, you were right.   She did good.

We can't let you get away before elaborating just a smidgen on the Hollywood stuff, which I go a bit gaga over in any film that goes there.  This one is liberally sprinkled with Hollywood names (I'm having lunch with Judy tomorrow... isn't that Joan Blondell over there... what do you think of Joel McCrea as an actor) and places of the time and habits and all sorts of minutia.  Fun for me.

Next posting:
A good 40s films

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